HARTFORD—In response to an explosive media report detailing chaos, criminal activity, and dangerous incidents at a Harwinton shelter for at-risk girls, House and Senate Republicans have called for the Department of Children and Families to explain to the legislature its procedures for placing high-risk juveniles in group homes as well as the processes and policies associated with choosing and overseeing organizations that operate them.
A Sept. 10 report published by CT Inside Investigator spotlighted state police documentation and frustration from Harwinton municipal and emergency services officials over the Short Term Assessment & Respite (STAR) Home in Harwinton, which is operated by the nonprofit Bridge Family Center. The home is one of four emergency shelters in the state operated by Bridge, housing girls with behavioral and mental health problems who are in DCF custody after being removed from the care of their families.
“What is alleged to have happened to the kids under the care of this shelter, including but not limited to sex trafficking, and sexual assaults committed by staff on minors is nauseating if not infuriating,” said state Rep. Lezlye Zupkus, a Deputy Republican Leader from Prospect. “This is a flashing red light telling us that something is broken in the process of providing help to these children—starting with an apparent lack of accountability with the vendor who, according to allegations in the story, may have instructed staff to throttle calls made to law enforcement. We must get to the bottom of what transpired, including why, as police indicated, DCF continued to place juveniles in a setting where staff could not provide the level of care needed, including those on probation and with ankle monitoring bracelets. We have to make certain that these facilities are operated and monitored properly by DCF.”
Zupkus is among House and Senate Republicans who have requested that the legislature’s Committee on Children, which has cognizance over matters related to DCF, hold an informational hearing about what has transpired at the STAR Home in Harwinton as well as the process used to secure vendors such as Bridge Family Center. Together, Republicans say it would be important for lawmakers to also hear from local officials who contend that public safety is at risk because of activity at these homes.
“These are very dangerous incidents that are alleged to have occurred, impacting the young clients at the STAR facility, its staff, and our first responders. Harwinton is a rural town with limited resources. The constant efforts required to address these reported issues have made it difficult for local officials to continue to serve the rest of the community,” said state Rep. John Piscopo, who represents Harwinton. “In order to curb this alarming trend, I support a full-scale review of facility operations.”
In a letter to DCF Commissioner Vanessa Dorantes, Republicans posed questions that include whether Bridge Family Center was selected to operate STAR through a competitive bidding process, and the extent of agency oversight on the operation of contracted shelters and group homes for high-risk juveniles.
“The safety of the girls, the staff and the general public must be our top priority,” said Sen. Lisa Seminara, the Ranking Senator on the Committee on Children who represents part of Harwinton. “The safety of our first responders—our EMS, police, and fire personnel who are very often called to the site—must also be paramount. What we need are detailed answers to the many questions this story has raised. What we need is transparency.”
“Local leaders and law enforcement officials are sounding alarm bells,” said Sen. Henri Martin, who also represents part of Harwinton. “They are expressing concerns about inadequate oversight and protocols that are placing the community at risk.”
Zupkus contends the news report from CT Inside Investigator should trigger a broad review of how and where troubled juveniles are placed.
“The memorandum prepared by the resident state trooper in Harwinton is utterly shocking, and it’s clear to me that these children, troubled as they may be, have been let down by an agency and vendor who operated in what looks to be a nebulous system that invited even more chaos into their lives,” she said.